I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the stories we tell and how we need to tell them. After taking in Sarah Polley’s documentary aptly titled, Stories We Tell, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and re-reading Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I’ve been thinking about the convergence of art and life. How the rhythm in which an artist (and by artist I mean anyone who creates something new, challenging, ugly and beautiful) lives and sees the world, and how that movement juts up against the velocity of the world around them. The two are rarely, if ever, in synch, and often times the artist is left lost and confused. The artist wants to keep pace, but it’s a tricky thing when your work is seeing the world as it is, in its moment, breathing it in, altering it somehow, re-defining it, and then drawing the curtains, opening the barn doors to proudly share the harvest. By the time you’ve invited them in to see the world through your eyes, they’re on to something else. They’re playing with this shiny object over here, they’re fixated with this new glossy thing over there.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about balance. Someone presented me with a real, viable pragmatic opportunity. This offer would allow me to breathe a sigh of relief that the bills would be paid and the lights would remain, steadfastly, on, but as I thought about it I realized that taking this offer would put me back where I started nearly four years ago. I would relegate my art to the basement, it would be a grotesque thing, a changeling left to fend for itself in the dark, and the cycle would go on.
It’s a frightening thing to feel something within you grow. After years of having your heart be a desert to find that there is earth, there is a harvest waiting to be cultivated, that there are words ready for the bloom. So I knew in my heart that if I had to choose between writing this very difficult short story (a follow-up to this story) and working toward this very pragmatic opportunity, I will always choose the former. And so I did. And so the great fear of the unknown, of the financially unstable, continues. How to find a way to balance the art and the work. How to make room for all the children in the crib, as it were.
So this story is a little interesting. I’m deliberate with the tense, tone, and POV shifts. I’m also learning that I’m writing something that is not really about adultery or a family unraveling, but about hurt. Hurt that is intentional and non-intentional, physical and mental — how we are affected and in the line of fire, and how we get scorched on the sidelines. I kept that in mind as I was writing this. That hurt for these set of characters is not ephemeral, it’s a constant, and only the form of it mutates and changes shape. So here it is…
THE WOMAN ON THE HOTEL BED
We prefer you blond, rich, and on the verge of expiration. You were someone before your face caught on fire: a woman with a pedigree, who so glamorously slummed it, the owner of black diamond earrings and forever bruised knees. A daughter whose heart once broke in four places when your father called you an expensive parking lot, trash taken out on Wednesdays. Even after the strange woman with the butter breath and wild eyes tied your ankles so tight the slightest movement made your skin scrape and burn, even after the flames singed your white hair black –even then, you never considered an apology, a final cinematic plea for forgiveness.
You weren’t the woman who barged into their house and rearranged the furniture. The house was run-down and flashing no vacancy long before you pulled up in the driveway and made your demands.
When the woman (is that frosting on her collar?) yanked the sock out of your mouth and said, “Tell me your name,” you coughed through tears, “You…” Mind changed, sock shoved all the way in, lights out, door locked, and the woman soft-knuckling the window, saying her goodbyes.
You weren’t always this way. You weren’t always the light bulb hanging over a man’s bed.
You’ve gone and done it again. Out cold. Gone silly. What am I going to do with you? A man should be able to handle his smoke, work a needle. But bruised, railroad tracks for arms and the tar hair – it’s sloppy. It’s loud. You’ve got to be clean about being vacant. You’ve got to be fucking quiet about your absences. This isn’t a church or a hospice, Jonah. A man doesn’t preach out his pain. He keeps it close, inside, like a house where you lock all the doors. A man wears long sleeves.
I have all this pain, Jonah said. And I don’t know where to put it. Where do you put it? Is there a house I can rent? A storage room I can use? Where does it all go?
A year later, the needles disappear, and turn into bottles of colorful pills abandoned. But no one knows this. No one’s been keeping up, making the calls, and unscrewing the caps. Everyone’s living as if the tape’s in perpetual rewind. Mornings, Jonah scrawls the world terrible on a mirror, using a woman’s lipstick.
Current status of woman: unknown.
You have to know that he’s not a man, not yet. In the literal sense of the word, of course, of course, with his license to buy booze he’ll never drink and rent cars he’ll never drive because he walks. But to me, he’s a twenty-six-year-old boy on the verge, with scabbed fingers and uneven arms from a car accident we never talk about. Holes in his arms that are slowly closing up, needle marks I wish I could paint over and drywall. Points of entry, Jonah calls them. Although I wish they were exit routes.
When Jonah was small, he’d draw circles around his body with chalk, marker, whatever he could get his hands on, and he’d tell me that this body was a house, a container in which we could fill our sadness, all of it, because it was the right thing to do. Maybe one day we won’t be so sad anymore. While my father raged and yelled and kicked chairs across the room, my mother smiled, smoothed his hair in all the right places, and said, Look at my little man, saving me.
Back then, my mother held Jonah longer than she should have. She was always grasping at things, and he seemed to be the one constant, the one thing that would allow for her fierce attachment. Theirs was a love that made him grow, forced her to recede. When he wandered off, which he was prone to do, my mother would trail behind, hawking, tidying up. When he caught a bird by the legs and squeezed it, hard, my mother begged him to let it go. There was tetanus, rabies, and multi-syllabic illnesses to consider, treat and manage. Sixteen shots to the stomach, she warned. Needles as long as your arm, she begged. But he didn’t acquiesce, rather he stared at her with eyes that were shuttering and blue, and said, do you think it can feel me? The bird bit and thrashed and Jonah’s arms were clawed and marked, but still he held on. My mother later told me she was awestruck, admired him (my little man is fearless!), and I never understood it – how she didn’t shake the crazy out of Jonah, lock him in his room, but that was Ellie: always wanting to be the thing she created, never the thing she was.
After a few moments, Jonah let the bird go. Said, I’m bored with this. Do we need to go to the hospital now? Should we go in the car? But wait, you can’t drive.
Jonah was six.
Nine years later, Jonah hurled a bowl of cereal at me and said, “You’re adopted.” I was thick in the business of excess fat elimination, and was more horrified by the prospect of whole milk adding a layer over my already whittled frame. Was it possible to gain weight by proximity, by standing next to the thing I was desperate to avoid? The kitchen was quiet save for the dripping milk and Jonah’s steady breathing. My father was on a plane to who knows where coming from who knows what, and my mother was in the bedroom, buying things from catalogs. Stasis.
“It’s not my fault you’re a loser,” I said.
“Try putting something in your mouth, give it a new sensation. I’m talking about things that are edible, although that’s debatable.” Jonah reached for a muffin, a blueberry one, which was cruel and calculating because blueberry muffins were my absolute and unequivocal downfall – the one thing that could bring this elimination game down, tip the scales, as it were – and he knew this. Look at that fucker tearing into the muffin like some barn animal. It wasn’t even a muffin top tease, no; it was a full-on rapture, down to the burnt ends and crumbs on his plate. As he reached for another muffin (are you kidding me with this?), I realized I hated my brother. This was more than the normal sort of hate that transpires between siblings who dodge one another between classes and deny one another’s existence in the confines of fluorescent hallways and cafeterias that served stale milk. No, this was a body gone numb, a loathing that rises up your throat – the kind that makes normal people feral. The kind of rage where you stab your brother with a kitchen fork because he’s devouring the one thing you want to consume. Look at his mouth, all gruesome and littered with crumbs!
“At least mom didn’t catch me jerking off. Oh wait, that was you,” I said, sipping hot water.
“She probably liked it. Probably the most skin she’s seen in months. Now I get why dad put the clamp on cable porn. Looking through people’s windows and barging into their rooms is far more interesting. You get the unscripted version of things.”
“You’re totally sick.”
“Sick how?” Jonah laughed, clutching his stomach; his body caved in on itself, and he moaned in a way that would suggest cramping, and suddenly what had been a body cowering became a thing blooming. Arms outstretched, chest buoyed out, eyes wide, he said, “You’re adopted, you should know this. We didn’t want to hurt your feelings, but someone had to put at end to it. Someone needed to wipe the casualty tears. Come on, make with it, Gillian. Show me sad.”
“Shut up. Shut your mouth,” I said. He’d been on this kick for weeks, talking about bloodlines and lineage, and my mother told me to ignore him, my father, visibly annoyed by any distraction, said, he’s just trying to get a rise out of you, but Jonah had a way of crawling under your skin and settling there. Altering the way you feel things.
“You’re not our kind,” Jonah said. “But maybe that’s a good thing.”
Now do you understand? How Jonah has to be considered. Factored in.
“Were your knees always like that? Bruised?” Jonah says, leaning into me in a way that felt like an intrusion, a disturbance in every place. What right did he have to my knees? Jonah sighs, continues, “It’s a good thing that she’s dead. It’s good. She’s gone one-way while we’re still scrambling for our round-trip tickets.”
“What are you talking about, Jonah?”
“I think you mean who.”
“Tell me you’re not skipping pills.”
“The falcon preaches to the falconer. Want to unscrew my caps and count to ten?” Jonah laughs so hard he tips his chair backwards, falls to the floor and lays there, laughing. There are tears in his eyes.
It is imperative that we return to the script.
“Tell me about your life, about the friends you’re making,” I say.
“Friends? Now that’s a hand already played. Should we make small talk, then? Talk about the weather, the book I just read or the five-year-old girl that was fucked in Afghanistan and forced to marry her rapist? No, I thought we’d talk about you. About the friend you made.”
The way Jonah says friend.
And then: “About the car he drives, that house he lives in with that dead wife and the daughter in the window. Never thought you’d be a woman who goes in for stucco. I like to watch her sometimes – the daughter, not the wife. Although I suppose I could go visit her if I knew where she was buried. Mostly, I wonder how the story of my sister and the man who sleeps on top of her sheets instead of between them, will play out. You shouldn’t do that, Gillian. Covet someone else’s property. It’s not good. Karma and all.”
“She wasn’t buried, she was burned,” I say. “And how do you know all of this? You live in New York, practically another country.”
“I wonder what that’s like…being burned,” Jonah pauses, and his voice drops to a level that reminds me of my mother before the constraints and shocks and the clean white hospitals with dirty beds. When she was calm. “But I’ll tell you about friends. I’ve got this friend, Lionel. Only he’s invisible. But he’s smart, he’s been teaching me about evil. How to find it, carve it out, and get things clean.” Jonah laughs in a way that’s foreign, in a way that’s not my brother. Or possibly this is Jonah all along.
It’s important we stick to the format. The show must go on. “Have you gone to see mom?”
Jonah winces as if the word is a pinprick.
“I didn’t think so. I could hardly recognize her. Her hair…there’s nothing left of it. And they’ve got her tied down after she took a razor to her stomach a few weeks back. You know what she told me before I left? She looked down at her stomach and said she was waiting for you to come out. I said, ‘Mom, he’s a man now, he’s out.’ And she said, ‘Wait for his arrival. It’ll be something to see.’”
“Arrival,” Jonah says. He repeats the word a few times, as if he were a metronome, the word a heartbeat.
“The doctors say she’s safe as long as I keep writing the checks.”
“Have you met her?” Jonah interrupts, suddenly serious. He’s lying on the floor, staring up at the ceiling.
“The baker who keeps trailing you. She’s a piece of work, that one. Sometimes I follow her to the ravine, and see her staring at rocks. Arrival.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about the sad girl who watches you sleep.”
His room is blue. He needs it that way, clean. Jonah lives in a building under construction, a building still being built, and his room was once a laboratory where doctors would perform procedures on women in the business of elimination. Floor painted black, walls the color of certain skies – he needs space to move because he’s become sessile, like a barnacle affixed to the undersides of large ships and fat whales. He’s become attached to pain, so much so that Lionel has to put the shake in him, has to shove him in front of the mirror so Jonah can see the barnacles. They cover his face. There’s no way to get clean. They know their own kind, Lionel says, handing him a knife. Get to scraping, Lionel urges. There’s no way of getting clean, otherwise. His words are a blinding sunrise Jonah doesn’t want to see, a note held for too long (needle lifted, placed back on the record, again, again), to a point where the music becomes too difficult to bear. Jonah’s face hurts, feels smothered, this is why he needs the blue. The river will loosen the grip and cool him down.
Sometimes he has nightmares of Indians in the ocean.
A head lifts, a word holds and plays out the scene, looks for places to hide but there are none. And the cold: No. But the word is a note folded into itself, a wave carrying his voice out into the ocean, and he finds himself grabbing for a mouthful of air, wants to shut Lionel the fuck up (dude, can you just quit the shit?), but there’s no quitting of the shit. There is only Lionel, whose voice, with the passage of each day, only seems to get louder.
Behind him, Lionel breathes on his neck and whispers, “We need to talk about your sister. We need to talk about what should be done with her.”
“What should be done with her?” Jonah asks, but he already knows.
We need to talk about the car accident. There’s no way around it. But first, we should probably discuss the incident with the tweezers.
Jonah is neither handsome nor “hot” in the conventional sense of the word, rather, he is beautiful – devastatingly, always, so. The blond curls, the soft, full mouth and eyes so blue they make you wince. One has to squint when they meet Jonah. One has to retreat. His sort of beauty registers well for a man, but not for the son of a barrel-shaped father with black eyes and a face that could only be described as fleshy. Jonah was tall for ten, angular and lean, some might describe him as soft, and this beauty in a home where snakes travel up from the ravine to burrow and breed under our trees – was unacceptable. My father would hand Jonah guns he wouldn’t fire and axes he wouldn’t swing.
When my father arrived home from a village that cartographers failed to map, raw from a deal that fell through, a botch investment which would require us to move to a garden apartment and hock all the finery, he was sauced on gin and sore beneath his clothes. Later, my mother affixed ice packs to blankets to wrap around his thighs and shins that had swollen and turned bloodied black. Later, my father covered the places the tweezers had been. Later, we packed the whole of our lives into boxes we stole from the supermarket. Later, my mother shrilled, you are lesser than. Her fury gave her the kind of temporary apoplexy that prevented her from completing sentences, but her fragments and half thoughts were just as ruinous. After the accident, my father told me I was a wreck, a waste.
But at that particular moment it was just Jonah in his room and my father’s soreness.
I also remember blood, my own, how it soaked through my pants and stained the sheets. I spent two days each month in the bathroom, and on one particular Saturday I heard my father stomp up the stairs and kick the door to Jonah’s room open.
“Ellie’s pretty little man. Well little man, show me your dick,” he said, “prove to me that you’re a man. Because I won’t accept a queer in my house.”
I put my hand on my mouth, tried to swallow breath and sound when Jonah said, “No. I will not.”
A scuffle, chairs knocked over, and a succession of screams. Doors slammed, engine fired, and a car bolting down the street.
I found Jonah on the floor, one blue eye bleeding. I pried open his fist to find a pair of tweezers, wet with blood not his own. Smiling, he said, “I tried to be good, but being good does you no good, so what else is there?”
We ran to the car. How hard could it be, I wondered? Key in the ignition, pedal to the gas, a wheel that moved this way and that? I was thirteen, driving a car down the street. The road shows us how close to the edge we are.
“What did you do to dad?” I said.
Jonah stared out the window, seeing through it, beyond it, to the houses down the drive. “I didn’t do anything. No, that wasn’t me. That was Lionel.”
“Jonah, what did you do?” I cried out.
“I don’t like mittens. I don’t like people who wear them. That thumb is all alone, while all the other fingers point and laugh.”
“What did you do with the tweezers?”
“Lionel cut things,” Jonah said. “He told me to go to sleep. Told me he was going to get surgical. So that’s what I did. I went to sleep. Where are we going?”
“We’re running away.”
“You’re driving. I’m sitting. No one’s running.”
“No one you need to meet.” Jonah said, “Let’s play a game.
“What kind of game?”
“To play it, we’ll need the tree.”
A hand jerked the wheel. A foot pumped the gas instead of the brake. The smell of steel and smoke. Glass raked through our hair. A collarbone shattered. Knees all scraped and bruised.
At the hospital my mother said, “What were you thinking? What did you do to him?”
“I’m bleeding,” I said, but she was already gone, scurrying away with her little red book to the payphone.
“Nothing good will ever come out of you,” my father said. He walked with a slow limp, a man past his prime, already put out to pasture; a man who knew that his wife changed the sheets on their bed before he pulled into the driveway because he couldn’t bear the thought on sleeping on something used. It killed him to place a hand on a warm and ravaged bed. Once, I overheard him say to my mother, keep it clean and quiet. To which she responded, what kind of woman do you take me for? I’ve been clean; it’s been quiet.
All those years, my mother gave him this one gift: clean sheets.
Even in the waiting room, with its air conditioning and lights too bright, we could feel the heat. The cold wind came down from the mountains hot, determined to ruin. Twenty days a year we suffered the kind of heat that made sane men wild, rabid, prone to killing garden snakes and black rabbits with machetes. The kind of heat that made women push their husbands out of moving cars, while their newborns were strapped into the back seat. Teenagers jumped off the tallest buildings they could find, but only ended up cracking ribs and a few bones. The streets stunk of carrion, cigarette smoke and bad luck.
My father leaned in close and said, “Do you hear me?”
“I hear you just fine.” My mother stood against a payphone, loading it up with change, punching the keys and crying into the receiver to whoever was on the other side.
“You know how much your little joyride cost me?”
“It must hurt to have another man in your house. Fucking mom. On your bed,” I said. Men in our town were buying up real estate in my mother’s heart and only two fit—the man in her bed and the boy on her knee. My father and I were the remains; renters who dared to shove our way in if there was a vacancy. I was thirteen and I knew this. My father was thirty-eight and still thinking he had a claim by way of a marriage certificate, but that wasn’t a deed and no one told him the rules of the game or how it was played. My father hated me and I loved him for it.
He receded; maybe realizing the graft of love he tried to stick onto mom wouldn’t take. He was molting, and the one person he loved didn’t care.
That night, Jonah shook his head. “You got it all wrong. It was Lionel.”